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What is Geography?

Display of children's work on Africa
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It's about Africa so it must be geography – do you agree?

Imagine the following scenario...

On the wall display are the children's booklets about African animals which are carefully researched and well written. They describe the animal and some of the characteristics of the animal's lifestyle but nothing about where the animal lives or the impact that the animal has on the environment or the lives of people who live there. There is no map on the wall so it is impossible to locate where each of these animals may be found. Is this geography?

My reason for starting with this short conundrum is that for some teachers in some classes there is often confusion about what geography is. Teachers often provide a focus on animals because they believe that most children love animals and that such a topic motivates children's learning. But just how do we ensure that a topic where the starting point is animals, or for that matter, African drummers, actually includes some geography?

This issue is going to be of increasing concern as schools follow the route of an integrated curriculum. If you believe, as we do at the Geographical Association, that children have an entitlement to develop their understanding of geographical ideas and to develop geographical skills then you'll want to make sure that this doesn't happen in your school. The next activity should help you clarify your thinking about what geography is all about.

Activity: What is geography?

1. Ideally you will work in groups of three.

2. Give each person three small slips of paper and ask them to write down three things that they think geography is. Write each idea down on a separate piece of paper.

3. Now try ordering everyone's ideas into a list. Place the most important things at the top (or perhaps create a diamond ranking).

4. Now view the presentation below called `What is geography?’ The words (in blue) in the presentation were written by Simon Catling and form the introduction to Chapter 6 of the Primary Geography Handbook (Scoffham, 2005)


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5. As you view the presentation make a list of key words or phrases that Simon uses.

6. Now compare your own list with the one you made based on Simon's writing.

7. What differences are there between the two?  Have you identified areas that you need to develop further in your school?  Have you identified aspects of geography that you feel Simon Catling missed?

8. Make a note of these as they will be very useful to you as you begin to formulate a 'vision' for the kind of geography that you would like to see in your school.

9. If you follow an integrated curriculum how will you ensure that teacher colleagues embrace these ideas in their curriculum planning and delivery?

If you are new to subject coordination and you've engaged with this activity you have probably taken your first steps along the path of becoming a geography subject leader. You may choose to follow this up with the next unit, Subject Leader or Manager?


Scoffham, S. (Ed.) (2005) Primary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: The Geographical Association. Available on the GA's online shop.


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Course Units

Getting Started
Getting Started
What is Geography?
What is Geography?
Subject Leader or Manager?
Subject Leader
or Manager?
A vision for geography?
A vision for geography?
What is geography for?
What is geography for?
Distinctly Geographical!
Distinctly Geographical!
Assessment in geography
Assessment in geography
Evaluating the geography curriculum
Evaluating the geography curriculum
Plenary: Communicating quality geography
Plenary: Communicating quality geography

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